Friday, 18 January 2013

Burn the Witch Hunters!

It turns out, I know a lot more about keeping an organisation from tearing itself apart with internal conflict than you do, having put a lot of research and thought into it (enough that it earned a distinction) for my honours degree. There are two different organisations in South Africa  - Alzheimer's SA and Dementia SA - that are wastefully both dealing with dementia in pretty much the same way, all because the management of each couldn't resolve their petty personal differences about 10 years ago. I'm not going to discuss them here, but they do stand as an example of how people nominally working together can split apart for stupid and irrelevant reasons.

The reason my attention has been drawn this way is that a festering mess in some foreign skeptics' circles has now leaked into my local group: The "Is Rebecca Watson an Evil Misandrist®?" debate. And while, as I've said before, the skeptics' community is a very big, informal and anarchic thing, we can still draw some useful parallels with my experience with Alzheimer's SA and the general question of non-governmental organisations' cohesion. Because whether they exist as formal organisations or vague associations, they're all ultimately held together by social capital, the willingness of their constituent people to do things for each other and for the group, not because of quantifiable cash profit but because of abstract friendship, loyalty, a sense of shared accomplishment. Petty, avoidable squabbles will naturally tend to undermine this.

My initial perspective is always to look at the big picture, at what the complete context is, and how each person's claims fit into this. This does mean I can sometimes be a bit dismissive of a person's concerns if they don't have much effect beyond the purely personal, if they don't appear to affect the group much. Of course, in this case I'm part of the group, and so my dismissiveness is another thing that can affect the group dynamic, which is messy. But in general, I prefer to step back and take in all the traffic patterns in town, rather than focusing on driving my own car. *EEEEEEEEEEEEsmash!*

The big picture at the moment is that there are a lot of people in a big huff over very little substance. The complete Rebecca Watson saga is now well beyond her, and yet people keep leaping back to her as the Great Evil behind it all. Broadly, I've seen three camps:
1. The "Rebecca is evil misandrist, leading a witch hunt against anyone who disagrees with her!" camp,
2. The "Misogynists are crawling out of the shadows, get them!" camp,
3. And the "Guuuuuuuuuys! Stop tearing us apart!" camp.

I suppose technically I'm closest to the third lot, except I don't think unity at all costs is as important as airing all the shit and getting it properly resolved. But I mean properly resolved, not 'internet argument that you just shut out when it's not going your way' kind of resolved. You don't fix problems by hiding them and ignoring them - it certainly didn't help Alzheimer's SA - and the illusion of "focusing on what's important" instead is unlikely to be more than a short-term fix, a treatment of symptoms rather than causes. It won't help.

The other two major camps share a few attributes - neither side has been perfectly rational or calm about things - but over all my sympathies tend to lie more with group 2, the underdogs in the big picture of society as a whole. We do need more feminism (an issue I could devote many whole posts to, but let's assume for today that this statement is not controversial) and it will require some people to make uncomfortable mental changes, leading to a degree of inevitable conflict. Could the conflict emerging right now be handled better? Fuck, yes. But I don't think group 1 really have that much of a leg to stand on, if group 2 can clean up their approach and start managing the conflict more effectively. There is no grand misandrist conspiracy, no organised anti-man campaign, as far as I can tell. The biggest problem I've seen has been miscommunication (Watson, for one, is definitely not as precise in her writing as she could be), fuelled mainly by prior biases on both sides.

Owen Swart has said he'll do a blog post laying out the opposite case, that there really is a big, nefarious plot against all penises, and it may turn out that I've missed something major. But until I've seen that, all I can go on is the evidence that I have seen so far, which says there's no evil plot. I've been following Skepchick daily for about 5 years now, in among all the other science and skepticism blogs I follow, and I have literally no idea what Owen & co. are talking about. I think it's telling that half a dozen people have insisted to me that they feel persecuted, and yet Owen is the only one who's been willing to say he'll put forward evidence of that persecution (and we'll have to wait and see what that actually is). The others have actively refused to back up their claims and even become insulted that I'd ask for it, as if their word should be enough. It's almost like they're not familiar with how skepticism works, and yet I know they are, so it's puzzling.

But those are the fidgety specifics. To me, the big picture is that two competing camps have formed, neither really trying very hard to see the other side's point of view and adapt. Instead, the term 'witch hunt' has become thoroughly overused. Both sides feel victimised, or at least act like it, and this is probably the main obstacle keeping this from getting resolved. I would suggest two things to resolve this:
1. Direct communication.
2. Evidence-driven honesty.

The first is more or less what my advice was to Alzheimer's SA, after my research. Isolated cells of people working together in a small regional group (which is a fair enough description of a lot of the skeptical community) are fine for day-to-day operations, but this way of operating makes it too easy to lose touch with people in other cells, except in the most superficial manner, and so diverging views will inevitably evolve. At the very least, we need to make a serious effort to keep familiar with each other's views, so that there aren't sudden, unexpected burst-discoveries of how different other people can be. But even better, we should probably mix and mutate our views, learning from each other, not just passively observing differences. None of this is possible if we insist on gossiping among our usual close groups and "shunning" (another over-used word lately) those who we currently find disagreeable. All that leads to is greater animosity and less understanding. This all requires constant effort, though, so it's easy to see why it might be easier to slip into lazy isolationism.

There was an interesting interview with Jamy Ian Swiss on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe episode 379, which covered a lot of similar ideas - dealing with conflicts over what the skeptical movement is for and who gets a say in this - and is worth (re)listening to with all this stuff in mind too.

 My second suggestion is perhaps harder to apply, but is ultimately more important. I've been hearing a lot this week about how people feel persecuted or have a feeling that Rebecca Watson is just a calculating publicity devil. This may be so for them, I'm not interested in debunking anyone's personal, subjective feelings, but it's not enough as a basis for getting everyone riled up. A lot of people feel scared of ghosts, but is that a good reason to start developing proton packs, ecto-containment units and customised Miller-Meteor ambulances. No! Ghosts don't exist and those things should be developed for other, much more rational reasons, like that I want them. But fear of ghosts/"femi-nazis"/rapists should not be the basis for policy; the actual prevalence and severity of ghosts/"femi-nazis"/rapists is what a rational policy is based on (and two out of those three don't exist outside of scary stories).

The important question then is, what is the reality behind all the accusations of witch hunts and abusive sexism? I'm perfectly happy to admit that my casual, unplanned observations over the last half-decade could have missed something important, but Occam's razor, the burden of proof and the null hypothesis all tell me to stick with that until I get good evidence to the contrary, rather than leaping angrily onto a bandwagon (in either direction) out of emotion and close-group loyalty. When someone can't give me evidence, I'm more inclined to ignore them. When they actively refuse to give it and when they poo-poo any evidence contrary to what they want, I almost can't help assuming the worst about their intentions. I realise this is a failing on my part, and is probably just as untrue as most of the other assumptions floating around this mess, which just goes to show how important the previous suggestion (direct communication) is. You have to have both elements functioning together, because good evidence doesn't come from thin air.

Now, that's all my distant, academic stuff. It's also been suggested that I'm just naive, so let me stroll down from the ol' ivory tower for a second a give a personal anecdote to illustrate just how well I know the real cost of all this.

I was accused of stalking a woman. Let me say at the very start that I didn't stalk her. But I can be a pretty unpleasant person sometimes (and I was especially bad around age 20), and I was a bit mean to her on one occasion. I regret that, but fallible humans sometimes do these things, and our conversations, which had started out quite friendly and even romantic, became less and less frequent, until they just stopped altogether. It was a decline from both sides, not entirely her shunning me, though I was probably always a step behind, I think. There was no indication that I was not welcome to talk to her though, until one day she suddenly told me to piss off. So I did, permanently. The end. This is not really the typical model of stalker behaviour, and the surprising, confusing accusation of stalking only came to me a month or two later, indirectly, via mutual friends. Or rather, formerly mutual friends, as suddenly everyone was calling me a stalker and avoiding me and not inviting me out anymore. People who I didn't even know knew me as "that creepy stalker guy." A close friend of mine threatened to set the police on me, and I think there were vague hints from others of physical violence against me too (but I might be misremembering that part). It wrecked my social life and trampled on my self-esteem. I knew this woman less than a year, and yet I had to endure three or four years of people always assuming the worst about me and giving me shit.

The problem wasn't just evidence-free bandwagon-jumping, but also lack of communication. For well over a year, nobody who knew anything was willing to tell me exactly what I had done wrong, why I was a "stalker." It emerged, gradually, that a great many of them actually had no idea what the basis of the accusation was, and were just perpetuating the vague accusation on faith. Only a minority knew that really all it amounted to was that I once swore at her when I was angry. Years of my social life lost and buckets of self-loathing gained, all for that. None of those people were Evil™, for the most part they couldn't have gained anything from my loss, and they probably just felt protective towards the woman. I can easily accept that they had good intentions, rather than dismissing them as crazy femi-nazis on their rags. But when you don't have the evidence on your side too, good intentions clearly aren't enough.

So I know very well what the receiving end of a social "witch hunt" feels like (though perhaps we should stop using that term so loosely, out of respect for the real people who really get killed over literal-if-bullshit witchcraft accusations) and I have no doubt that I'd be pretty pissed off if Rebecca Watson and the other Skepchicks were really trying to get people to believe that I or my friends were rapists. But they're just not doing that. Treating them as if they are is irrational. And if they are, whispering about it amongst ourselves won't help anyway. If you have a problem with me, talk to me about it; if you have a problem with Rebecca Watson, get in the queue to talk to Rebecca Watson about it. But make it a genuine discussion, not just a chance to hurl accusations and run.

I think there are several lessons in this, but I think the key one is that the solution to feelings of persecution and shunning is not more persecution and shunning.

[EDIT: Owen has posted something that didn't impress me much, and I have responded to it.]